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Local News

Joliet will explore costs of free parking downtown

A sign marks the entrance to the Scott Street parking deck on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Joliet, Ill.
A sign marks the entrance to the Scott Street parking deck on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Joliet, Ill.

City staff will explore the possibilities of at least some free parking in downtown Joliet.

The Joliet City Council Economic Development Committee this week discussed the potential for a hybrid parking system in which street parking could be free, parking in decks would still be paid, and surface parking lots may be some of each.

The possibilities include a sale of the Scott Street parking deck but nothing was settled.

Much of it depends on who pays for free parking with council members hesitant to take money from other city funds.

"I would support it, but I don't want to see any money come out of the general fund," committee Chairman Larry Hug said.

The committee took up the issue at the urging of Mayor Bob O'Dekirk.

Economic Development Specialist Derek Conley said he would probably be able to complete an analysis of the financial impact of free parking in two months, when the committee will take another look at the matter.

Conley on Monday reported some findings to the committee that suggest free parking is never really free.

Plainfield, Morris and Naperville provide free downtown parking to the public but cover what costs they have through some form of tax revenue, Conley said. All three towns use the general fund, while Plainfield also has a Tax Increment Financing District that generates revenue for parking, and Naperville has special taxes on downtown businesses to cover those costs.

Even free street parking comes at a cost, Conley said, because someone needs to patrol and ensure that time limits and other regulations are not violated.

"Just because it becomes free doesn't mean the city doesn't have any expenses associated with it," Conley said.

A Special Service Area tax now paid by businesses downtown and in neighboring areas could be applied to parking costs, he said. So could a Tax Increment Financing District if the costs don't drain the two funds.

"Putting the burden on the SSA or the TIF would be less money we can use on other projects," Conley said.

The committee virtually ruled out free parking in the two parking decks which need an estimated $2 million for repairs and upgrades.

Conley will examine what benefits there may be in selling the Scott Street deck, which developer John Bays has shown interest in buying.

He also will look at whether any of the 10 surface lots could be available for free parking, although Conley said lots designated for Metra commuters would remain paid.

The city early this year increased parking rates downtown with a plan to fund a bond issue that would be used to repair the decks. That bond issue has been put on hold because of the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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